When the New Jersey Devils acquired P.K. Subban this summer, the hope was he’d help improve a much-maligned defense that was one of the worst in the league in 2018-19. Unfortunately, that hasn’t come to fruition. He has just 12 points in 52 games and has struggled on defense while playing in all situations.
But while Subban hasn’t played as many hoped he would, there’s still a path to getting him going in the right direction. His underlying numbers aren’t what we’re used to seeing from him, but they’re far from the worst on the Devils. With less than 30 games left in the season, interim coach Alain Nasreddine would be wise to move Subban into a new, more offensive-minded role.
Subban Still an Attacking Threat
There’s no doubting Subban has struggled this season. He seems to have lost a step and has gotten in trouble in the defensive zone on numerous occasions. But the Devils aren’t doing him any favors with the role they continue to give him. He’s played on their top pair almost every night, as well as on their power play and penalty kill. On most nights, he’s ending up with close to 22 minutes of ice time.
Subban would benefit from having some of those minutes reduced, but not to the point where he’s playing 12-13 minutes per game. Because for as much as he’s struggled defensively, his offensive numbers are in pretty good shape. The Devils are averaging 56.74 shot attempts per 60 minutes (CF/60) with him on the ice at even-strength — only Nikita Gusev has a better rate than him. They’re also averaging 2.50 expected goals for per 60 minutes (xGF/60) with Subban on the ice, ranked first on the team. And for the most part, his offensive impact has been generally positive.
Subban’s impact on CF/60, xGF/60 are just a bit above league average, but it’s the opposite defensively (CA/60, xGA/60). You also might be wondering why Subban is being compared to Damon Severson here. For all the criticism against Severson, he’s had the most positive defensive impact of any Devils’ defensemen, and it’s not close.
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Subban had the worst season of his career with the Nashville Predators in 2018-19 because of his defensive struggles, so it’s not like they’re unprecedented. And with Severson playing the best defensively from the Devils’ defensemen, it makes sense to flip their roles. It’d also mean Subban would be going against softer competition, which could help him become more involved offensively since it’s the strength of his game right now.
Possible Defense Partners for Subban
Subban has played with a few Devils’ defensemen this season, with the results varying from partner to partner. But there are a couple of defensemen he could benefit from playing with again, as well as a pair Nasreddine should consider splitting up.
Andy Greene and Subban
Greene has been Subban’s most common defense partner at even-strength. They’ve logged over 380 minutes together and against tough competition, but their results aren’t the best. The Devils have a shot attempt share (CF%) of 45.14% with them on the ice, as well as an xG share (xGF%) of 46.17%. Their games don’t compliment each other well. And even though Nasreddine likes consistency among his lines and defense pairs, it’s time to break up these two. For what it’s worth, Subban has a 50.53 CF% and 50.67 xGF% without Greene as his partner.
Will Butcher and Subban
Butcher burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2017-18, with 44 points in 81 games. His production declined last season, but he still had the best underlying numbers of the Devils’ defensemen. It’s been a struggle defensively for him this season, but he’s still had a generally positive impact on offense. He also hasn’t had a consistent defense partner for the majority of the season.
But when paired with Subban, Butcher has looked closer to the defenseman he was in 2017-18. They’ve played over 160 minutes together at even-strength and have a 52.63 CF%, as well as a 52.35 xGF%. Butcher is only 25 years old and is on a great contract, so he’ll be in New Jersey for the long haul. It’s no secret they’ve both struggled defensively, but the idea here would be to soften their minutes by placing them in offensive situations. A top pair of Greene and Severson, with an offensive-minded second pair of Butcher and Subban, is worth exploring.
Severson and Subban
The Devils tried this earlier in the season, and it was arguably the best defense pair they’ve had. These two had a 53.97 CF% and 59.91 xGF% in 211 minutes at even-strength, so it’s a surprise they haven’t gotten another shot together. Nasreddine has kept his lines and defense pairs pretty consistent since he took over after John Hynes’ firing on Dec. 3.
But the Devils have lost six of their last eight games. Some poor defense has been a significant reason why, even in a 5-0 win against the Philadelphia Flyers, where they gave up 46 shots on goal. So it’d be a good time to mix up their defense combinations. If Nasreddine wants to keep Subban in a top-pair role, he needs someone other than Greene playing with him. And Severson would be the ideal replacement, as their numbers together are significantly better than they are when Subban is with Greene. It’d be worth seeing if their early-season minutes weren’t a fluke, especially since they’re likely to be on the 2020-21 roster.
Getting Their Gamble to Pay Off
The Devils took a risk on Subban that hasn’t worked out, but there is another level to his game worth finding. With that said, it’s unlikely to come with him playing 21-23 minutes per game against opponent’s top lines because his defensive game isn’t what it used to be. He’s still having a positive impact on offense, though. So reducing some of his defensive responsibilities and having him become more of an offensive defenseman should benefit him.
That may be the only option the team has with Subban, too. He’s on the books at $9 million per year through 2021-22, so it’ll be difficult for the Devils to trade him. And why would they when his value is the lowest it’s ever been? The best path for both sides would be to find a way to get him in a groove, but it has to happen at some point over the next few weeks. He can still be an effective top-four defenseman. It’s just a matter of finding a role more suitable for where his skillset is now.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick
Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017